Good Uses for Chesapeake Muck

March 05, 1991

Muck dredged from the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay is rich in organic matter. That is why scientists study it intensively. But the spoil dredged to keep the bay's shipping channels deep enough for the biggest ocean-going freighters is smelly. That is true of most soils rich in organic matter. They smell like something you wouldn't want in your front yard. One whiff of a manured farm field should convince anyone of that. And yet many folks want manure for their gardens.

That parallel should be kept in mind when considering a report by the task force Gov. William Donald Schaefer set up to figure out what to do with bay sludge. Over the next 20 years, 100 million cubic yards of Chesapeake Bay bottom soil will be scooped out to keep the shipping channels at their authorized 50-foot depth and keep the commerce flowing in one of America's most important waterways.

Task force members, led by state Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer, see the dredged spoil as a resource, not a hazard. They would like the material, tested to insure it is clear of toxic chemicals or other polluting deposits, used to rebuild eroded areas, such as the Poplar Islands or Bodkin Island. That would make sense, since the eroded materials must be replaced anyway, and bottom soil from one part of the Chesapeake should nearly match what was washed away.

As it is, the dredged spoil is dumped behind dikes into the Hart-Miller Island containment area (which is fast reaching its maximum capacity) or dumped into a 20-mile stretch of the bay below Poole's Island. Mere dumping of the dredged muck can't be better than figuring out where this rich, sandy soil full of decayed organic matter could do some good. Put in carefully planned places, the muck might provide new footholds for bay grasses or become foundation soil for new shellfish bars.

Any contaminated dredged spoil could still be disposed of in newly designated containment areas. Dumping uncontaminated bay spoil at the containment site merely helps to insure that there will be less room for the really toxic stuff, however. As the task force has said, surely better solutions can be found.

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